Decreased Thermal Sensitivity in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Friday, May 13, 2016: 10:55 AM
Room 309 (Baltimore Convention Center)
E. G. Duerden1, M. J. Taylor2, M. Lee3, P. A. McGrath4, K. D. Davis5 and W. Roberts6, (1)The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON, Canada, (2)Diagnostic Imaging, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON, Canada, (3)Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON, Canada, (4)Pain Innovations Inc., London, ON, Canada, (5)Toronto Western Research Institute, University Health Network, Toronto, ON, Canada, (6)University of Toronto, toronto, ON, Canada
Background:  Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterised by a range of behavioural, communication and social difficulties, as well as sensory abnormalities. While much research and clinical attention has focused on communication and socialization deficits, relatively less research has focused on sensory abnormalities, particularly altered pain reactivity, which may contribute to children’s withdrawal behaviours and corresponding psychosocial difficulties. 

Objectives: To assess sensitivity to thermal (cool, warm, heat pain, cold pain) stimuli in adolescents with ASD.

Methods: 20 adolescents with ASD (15 boys, mean age=14.6, SD=1.9, IQ > 70) and 55 typically-developing adolescents (27 boys, mean age=15.7, SD=1.1) were recruited for the study. Warm and cool detection thresholds (WDT and CDT) and heat and cold pain threshold (HPT and CPT) levels were assessed using a method-of-limits quantitative sensory testing protocol.

Results:  Adolescents with ASD demonstrated reduced sensory function for thermal detection (p<0.001, both WDT and CDT), but not pain thresholds (p<0.05, both HPT and CPT) in comparison to controls, with no evidence for significant age or sex effects (p>0.05). Loss of warm and cool detection and heat pain threshold was significantly associated with impaired cognitive ability and autism symptom severity (p<0.05). 

Conclusions:  The association between thermal sensitivity and cognitive impairments and may reflect alterations in central processing of somatosensation, cognition and salience detection in adolescents with ASD. Further research using neuroimaging methods is needed to assess the neural underpinnings of thermal perceptual deficits in adolescents with ASD.